Carrier Bags Bad, Disposable Nappies Good

One of the reasons why I think the whole climate change alarmism is, well, alarmism is because the obvious solution is almost always dismissed out of hand. If climate change is occurring and it is due to humans releasing too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and if this activity left unchecked represents an existential crisis for the human race on a par with a meteor impact as some claim, then we should be switching to nuclear power as fast as we can build the new reactors. But we’re not, and those that are prophesying doom are usually the ones telling us we can’t because of the problems associated with nuclear power, e.g. the waste disposal and safety of the plants. The problems they cite are genuine but they don’t represent an existential threat to the human race the way climate change supposedly does and these problems are solvable, particularly if enough time, money, and resources are thrown at them. They are relatively minor, in other words. Therefore, if somebody is going to cite the problems with nuclear power as a reason why we cannot utilise this technology to stave off the imminent destruction of the human race, one is entitled to be skeptical as to the honesty and motivations of the anti-nuclear climate change alarmists.

In a more general sense, if somebody is citing a major problem and offering a solution, but ignoring more obvious solutions, chances are they are engaging in politics, virtue-signalling, or both. I was reminded of this the other day on a matter not related to climate change but another area of environmentalism which this blog likes to talk about: carrier bags. Somebody posted on Facebook a link to a story regarding a carrier bag ban which the government of Bali has introduced after two Balinese teenage girls petitioned them. Apparently discarded carrier bags are strewn all over Bali and Something Must Be Done. Naturally this was being applauded by all right-thinking folk, except me who suggested it might be better to first find out who is littering the island in this way: locals or Australian tourists. One individual thought this meant I was “looking for someone to blame” instead of “finding a solution”, leading me to conclude he was almost certainly a middle manager in a modern corporation and had been on a training course recently.

Anyway, my point was that those who litter will continue to litter with whatever they have to hand even if carrier bags were banned, and a better solution would be to identify who is doing it, find out why, and try to educate those people into valuing their environment a little more. That way you retain the utility of the carrier bags plus ensure no other form of littering takes place. Had anyone shown any interest I’d have even talked about how the alternative to carrier bags might be more damaging and a cost-benefit analysis might show simply sending somebody around once per day to collect the discarded bags to be the most effective solution.

But alas, I was dealing with the modern-day middle classes in the developed world for whom bans are the first resort rather than the last. Naturally, somebody invoked the plight of “the children”, which The Simpsons dealt with so well:

I was told by various wealthy middle class mothers that restrictions on plastic use are necessary so that “our” grandkids have a world left to live in. Never mind that if this keeps up the world “we” will bequeath to future generations will be a ludicrously expensive nanny-state which might not be worth living in.

But something occurred to me. Of all these middle class mothers who wish to see a reduction of plastic use and carrier bags banned, how many do you think swaddled their nappies in reusable, washable nappies instead of the convenient, non-biodegradable disposable ones? You know, the ones my mother used on her four kids through the 1970s that had to be washed by hand in the sink and then boiled in a special saucepan on the stove afterwards? I could have asked, but for the sake of good relations I didn’t, but then again I didn’t need to. I know damned well that for all the concern of the middle classes over plastic use and carrier bags, not a single one of them will shun disposable nappies and switch to towelling ones for the good of the environment.

The reason for this is simple: they are less concerned about the environment than they are preserving their own comfortable lifestyles, and when they talk about reducing plastic use they mean reducing other people’s plastic use. Sure they’ll reduce their own use to a point, and bring home the shopping in an organic woven hemp bag that fits nicely into the boot of their 3.2l SUV. They’ll probably even tell you about it, too. But they’ll not give up anything that is genuinely convenient to them: the inconvenience is for other people, you see. As I always knew regarding carrier bag bans, it is about virtue signalling more than concern for the environment. So next time you hear somebody advocating reducing plastic, casually ask them a couple of days later if they use Huggies or Pampers. You probably won’t even need to wait for the answer.

Myron Ebell and the Exploding Heads

James Delingpole has written a piece on when the media darlings covering climate change went to a Q&A session with Myron Ebell, the head of the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team.

Ebell had come to tell them about Trump’s plans for the environment and energy, which I won’t repeat here because you know them already.

They hated it. (Especially the bit where Ebell told them that Trump would definitely be pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate treaty) They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. They curled their lips. They laced their questions with the bitterest scorn. But they didn’t really tune into Ebell’s measured, silken, soft-spoken answers because, hell, they knew what he was saying just had to be wrong and they didn’t really understand what he meant anyway.

The reporter who set the tone – and if nothing else, you’ve got to admire his honesty – was the one from Channel 4 News who told Ebell: “It will occur to you that this room is full of people like myself who consider that nothing you say has any basis in fact. So what you’ve been telling us is essentially meaningless.”

Ebell replied with some painful home truths. “Elections are surprising things…” he began and went on to explain to the mystified audience why and how it was that Brexit happened and Trump happened.

Encouraged by Delingpole’s words I sought out the entire video on YouTube. If you have an hour to spare you should watch it, because it is glorious.

Myron Ebell is Cambridge educated and combines his unashamedly free-marketeer and small-government views with unfailing politeness and Zen-like calm, which contrasts wildly with the sneering smugness of the journalists in front of him. His “Elections are surprising things…” line is fantastic (he says it at 24:20).

Fracking Idiots

Via Tim Worstall, The Daily Telegraph dishes up some quality journalism on the subject of fracking:

Plans are being made for fracking to take place under Sherwood Forest where an ancient oak stands where according to legend Robin Hood and his merry men rested.

Ineos, one of the world’s biggest chemicals company, is poised to start looking for gas under Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire, in a move which could lead to it seeking permission to frack the area.

So are plans being made to start fracking, or is Ineos looking for gas?  Which is it?

Fracking is the process of drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside.

The Government has committed to fast tracking permissions for exploratory work amid forecasts that trillions of cubic feet of shale gas may be recoverable from underneath parts of the UK.

Fracking is not the same as exploratory work, which takes the form (at this stage) of seismic surveys which do not involve drilling.

Documents show Ineos – via their land surveyors, Fisher German – have been in correspondence with the Forestry Commission since August 2016, regarding access to their land.

Access in order to drill?  No.

If these plans progress, Ineos’ seismic surveys would pass within a few hundred yards of the Major Oak, a 1,000-year-old tree near the village of Edwinstowe.

Pass within?  These people have no idea what form a seismic survey takes, do they?

According to local folklore, it was Robin Hood’s shelter where he and his merry men slept and hid from the Sheriff of Nottingham in the 15th century.

In a 2002 survey, it was voted “Britain’s favourite tree”.

Information The Daily Telegraph considers more important to impart to its readers than the differences between carrying out a seismic survey and drilling a well.

Guy Shrubsole, a Friends of the Earth campaigner, said: “Is nothing sacred? By hunting for shale gas in Sherwood Forest, Ineos is sticking two fingers up at England’s green heritage, all in the pursuit of profit.

“The public wants to protect their English countryside and prefers renewable energy, not dirty shale gas, which will only add to climate change.”

And on the last day of 2016 a self-appointed expert declared what the public wanted, a practice which hitherto seemed doomed following high-level episodes of catastrophic wrongness regarding Brexit and Donald Trump.

Ineos confirmed that it was looking to start work in Sherwood Forest but insisted that great care would be taken to protect the Major Oak.

Tom Pickering, Ineos’s Shale operations director, said: “Any decision to position a well site will take into account environmental features such as the Major Oak and the planning process would also consider those issues.”

No decision on fracking under Sherwood Forest had yet been taken, he said, adding that Ineos would “undertake an extensive exploratory programme of seismic data acquisition across our wider licence area to better understand the subsurface geology including the fracture systems”.

Asked how Ineos would protect the trees of Sherwood Forest, Mr Pickering added: “When we do drill a vertical ‘coring’ well in the area, there are many general and specific environmental protections in place and we will of course abide by them.”

There was a time when journalists asked difficult questions that forced companies to reveal information that had hitherto been kept hidden.  Nowadays, journalists ask questions which can be answered by a cursory ready of a company’s website.

More Ruling by Decree from Barack Obama

Apparently Barack Obama doesn’t think America resembles a banana republic quite enough, and is keen to do something about that before he leaves office.  From the BBC:

Outgoing US President Barack Obama has permanently banned offshore oil and gas drilling in the “vast majority” of US-owned northern waters.

Permanently?  Just like that?

Mr Obama designated areas in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans as “indefinitely off limits” to future leasing.

The move is widely seen as an attempt to protect the region before Mr Obama leaves office in January.

Apparently eight years in office wasn’t long enough.

Supporters of president-elect Donald Trump could find it difficult to reverse the decision.

I imagine Trump’s supporters would find reversing Obama’s decisions difficult, yes.  Trump himself?  Maybe not so much.

Canada also committed to a similar measure in its own Arctic waters, in a joint announcement with Washington.

The White House said the decision was for “a strong, sustainable and viable Arctic economy and ecosystem.” It cited native cultural needs, wildlife concerns, and the “vulnerability” of the region to oil spills as some of the reasons for the ban.

Counterarguments such as jobs and energy independence from the rapidly imploding Middle East were presumably not considered.

But while Canada will review the move every five years, the White House insists Mr Obama’s declaration is permanent.

Read that again – “Mr Obama’s declaration is permament” – and remind yourself this is the USA and not Venezuela or Zimbabwe.

The decision relies on a 1953 law which allows the president to ban leasing of offshore resources indefinitely.

Really?  Which law?  The BBC doesn’t tell us, I suspect because this law allows for no such thing.

During the election campaign, Donald Trump said he would take advantage of existing US oil reserves, prompting concern from environmental groups.

But supporters have already suggested that any attempt to reverse the “permanent” decision outlined by the law would be open to a legal challenge.

Leave aside the idiotic belief that an administration can bind its successors and that a mechanism exists which allows Obama to declare something into law but doesn’t allow the next president to reverse it.  Let’s look at the fact that these idiots never learn.  If indeed Obama is allowed to make laws simply by issuing decrees from his office that completely bypass Congress and cannot be reversed, then Donald Trump is going to avail himself of those exact same powers in just over a month’s time, isn’t he?  Is that what everyone wants?

Reacting to the Arctic declaration, Friends of the Earth said: “No president has ever rescinded a previous president’s permanent withdrawal of offshore areas from oil and gas development.

That’s probably because no former president has been idiotic enough to do such a thing via last-minute declaration as he’s packing his bags to leave.  But I’m glad the clowns at Friends of the Earth understand the concept of precedent: they might find Trump is using this word a lot soon suffixed with the phrase “set by Obama”.

“If Donald Trump tries to reverse President Obama’s withdrawals, he will find himself in court.”

In which court?  On what charges?  Perhaps the BBC could have asked Friends of the Earth such basic questions.

However, the American Petroleum Institute said “there is no such thing as a permanent ban,” and that it hoped Mr Trump’s administration would simply reverse the decision.

Ah, finally somebody sensible.

Oil firms will still want to explore for further profits, though.

And there was me thinking oil companies explored for reserves.  Such high quality journalism is what Brits are forced to pay £3.5bn a year for.

And the next secretary of state, Exxon’s Rex Tillerson, may offer the industry a route round the ban by paving the way to an Arctic drilling deal with Russia.

What garbled rubbish is this?  Obama’s declaration – assuming it is worth anything – concerns US arctic waters.  Drilling in non-US waters is no more “getting around the ban” than drinking in a bar in Paris is “getting around” the Saudi ban on alcohol consumption.  And the “Arctic drilling deal” they refer to is an exploration pact between ExxonMobil and Rosneft, not “the industry” and “Russia”.

Very little oil drilling currently takes place in the Arctic region, as it is more expensive and difficult than other available options.

Well, yes.  It’s almost as if Obama’s declaration is mere posturing.

Yet More on Polythene Bags

Today I went grocery shopping, but went to a different supermarket than usual because I needed to buy things which aren’t normally available in the smaller store beside my apartment.  When I got there I discovered the aversion to polythene bags had reached far beyond the checkouts and into the heart of the shop.

Usually when buying loose fruit and vegetables you pull very light polythene bags off a roll and put your selection in them before weighing.  But in this place – a Monoprix – they had done away with the polythene bags and replaced them with stacks of paper bags like these:

So if you want to buy a lemon, two carrots, five potatoes, an onion, and a parsnip you need five of these bags.  You can see the problem already, can’t you?  The excess paper takes up a lot more space than excess polythene does, and so your basket is full after putting only a few small items in it.  You also can’t seal the bags like you can with the polythene ones by tying a knot in them, and the best you can do is scrunch them down.  Yeah, that’ll work on the drive home.

There is also a major drawback when you come to weigh them: the stickers don’t stay on a scrunched up paper bag, which is down to a combination of the irregular shape and the surface of recycled paper.  Put a sticker on a polythene bag and it stays on.  So you get to the till and find the stickers have fallen off.  This is progress, apparently.

I then went to another store, this one specialising in organic produce which I normally avoid like the plague but I had no choice if I wanted to find what I was looking for.  Their entire collection of carrots was split.  When I worked on Britain’s largest vegetable farm in the summer of 1996, we wouldn’t dream of selling split carrots to our supermarket customers.  Perhaps we should have doubled the price and sold them as “healthier carrots”?  Anyway, this shop had the same deal with the paper bags only you didn’t weigh them yourself, the cashier did it.  The geniuses who dreamed up this plan overlooked one crucial benefit of polythene bags over paper: you can see what’s inside!  So the cashier – I kid you not – had to unscrunch everyone’s paper bags to see what was inside before she could tap the price in.  Again, this is supposed to be progress.

Hey, maybe using millions of paper bags is better for the environment than using millions of polythene bags, I don’t know.   But I would like to see a study that shows the recycling process and the chemicals used, plus the transportation and disposal costs (paper bags are much heavier and bulkier), works out better for the environment than sticking with polythene bags.

Otherwise we’re being monumentally stupid, aren’t we?

Sweden’s Economic Brainwave

I’m sure Tim Worstall will get around to this, but I’m going to tackle it anyway.

To combat its ‘throwaway consumer culture’, Sweden has announced tax breaks on repairs to clothes, bicycles, fridges and washing machines. On bikes and clothes, VAT has been reduced from 25% to 12% and on white goods consumers can claim back income tax due on the person doing the work.

Years ago I had a Russian friend who moved from Dubai to Sydney.  Within a few weeks of her arrival she told me she found some aspects of living in Australia frustrating.  The example she gave was that she needed an old, decrepit wardrobe removed from her house, only to do this she had to call a removal company which could come some time next week and charge $200 for the job.  Whereas in Russia, she said, you just find a couple of alcoholics and buy them a bottle of vodka or two and they’d happily do it.  They’d probably go on to sell the wardrobe, too.

One of the big differences I noticed while moving between countries as economically diverse as France, Nigeria, Australia, Russia, and Thailand is that the wealthier a country is, the more difficult it is to get simple repair or semi-skilled trade jobs carried out.  The reason for this is obvious: as a country gets wealthier and more educated, the value added by each individual in the workforce increases, and a lot of low-value jobs simply disappear.  For example, in a poor country a guy can make a reasonable wage repairing bicycles: it might be the best way for him to make money and other people can’t afford to just buy a new one.  Whereas somebody living in London can make more money doing almost anything other than repairing bicycles, and he’d anyway have to charge so much that customers would find it easier and possibly cheaper to just buy a new one.  Economics, in other words.

You would therefore expect a developed country with an educated population like Sweden to have its workforce employed doing high-value jobs: technology, services, manufacturing, etc. rather than low-skilled jobs like repairing clothes.  And funnily enough that’s what they have, but now they’ve decided this ought to change:

The incentives are intended to reduce the environmental impact of the things Swedes buy. The country has ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but has found that the impact of consumer choices is actually increasing.

They appear to have stumbled on the concept that a low-tech economy in which consumers have fewer choices produces fewer greenhouse gases.  Now they want to move to such an economy, which is in the precise opposite direction everyone else is moving.  We have the developed world.  We also have the developing world.  Sweden wants to kick-start the undeveloping world.

The scheme is expected to cost the state some $54 million in lost taxes, which will be more than outweighed by income from a new tax on harmful chemicals in white goods.

Erm, okay.  But isn’t the point of this new scheme to reduce the number of new white goods being bought?  So if it is successful, this new tax take won’t materialise, will it?

Moreover, Sweden’s economy is growing strongly and the government has an $800 million budget surplus.

My bank account is in surplus.  I’m therefore going to quit heart surgery and take a job in McDonald’s.

I interviewed the man behind the scheme, deputy finance minister Per Bolund, a member of the Green party and a biologist by training.

Ah.

He spoke about nudging people towards better choices; creating jobs for skilled manual workers; and Sweden’s six-hour working day.

Moving workers from skilled to semi-skilled jobs is a better choice?  This doesn’t seem to be consistent with the history of the human race.

I think many of us have had a bike standing around broken and we don’t fix it and then start using other modes of transportation.

Which suggests the individuals concerned aren’t so interested in riding a bike, doesn’t it?

This will expand the number of companies giving these kinds of services, so it’ll be easier for consumers to have things repaired.

How many unrepaired bikes are lying around in Sweden, exactly?

And sometimes you can be surprised by how a small change in fees can really change behaviour.

Oh no, we are quite aware of how fees – especially taxes – can change behaviours.  For example:

And in white goods, the tax break is actually quite substantial since most of the cost of repair is actually labour, so it can really make a quite big difference.

You’ve taxed labour to the point semi-skilled jobs have vanished.  Now you need a tax break to bring them back again.

It’s actually a tax on chemicals. So if the appliance has harmful chemicals in the production process or incorporated in it there will be a levy, but if, on the other hand, you decrease the amount you can actually get a much lower levy, or even a zero increase. So that will give an incentive to producers to decrease the use of harmful chemicals, and we know that appliances are a major contributor to the amount of them in the everyday environment.

Great.  But what if by using less of the harmful chemical the appliance becomes less efficient, thus needing more power for the same performance?  I’m pretty sure this would apply to a fridge or air conditioner.  I’m also pretty sure nobody has thought about this.

The idea is to help the private and municipal sectors use nudges to make it easier for consumers to act responsibly and reduce their environmental impact with everyday choices.

Translation: we’ll make you pay more if you live in ways of which we don’t approve.

We don’t anticipate that this will make people avoid buying things overall, but hopefully it will be easier for people to buy high-quality products because they know it’s affordable to have them fixed if something breaks. So it’s a lessened incentive to buy as cheap as possible and then scrap something.

People generally buy high-quality products because they don’t want them to break.  Nobody buys a high-quality product thinking it is a smart purchase because when it breaks, Olaf from around the corner can fix it on the cheap.  All people will do is buy the cheaper (and probably less efficient) appliances and get them fixed if and when they break.  The high-end appliances, subject to the “harmful chemical” surcharge, will suffer a drop in sales.  And I bet the repairs will still be too expensive compared to scrapping and replacing goods made in China.

And we also know that repairs are more labour-intense than production, which has been largely automised, so expanding repairs could actually contribute to an expanding labour market and a decrease in unemployment.

So you want to go from a lower-cost, automated process to a high-cost, manual process to achieve the same result?  Progress!

Especially because repair services often require high skills but not very high education,

Highly-skilled jobs requiring no education.  I suppose this is the theory underpinning Sweden’s immigration policies.

so we believe there’s a currently unemployed part of the labour force that could benefit.

Why not get them doing jobs that need doing, rather than getting them to do tasks which without meddling with the tax system nobody has a demand for?

Of course it is a boost for the local labour market because repairs are by their nature done near where you live. So hopefully this will contribute to the growth of jobs locally all over the country. Whereas large-scale manufacturing is very centralised and can only happen in a few locations around the nation and internationally.

A blast-furnace in every garden!

We’ve managed quite well to decrease emissions within Sweden – by some 25% since the early 1990s – but we see that the environmental effects of consumption are actually moving in the opposite direction, they’re increasing. And since Sweden wants to be a leader in sustainable development on a global scale, we feel a responsibility to do what we can domestically to decrease the impact of consumption.

No new bike for you, Erik!  The government has decided you must get your old one fixed.

What do you think of the six-hour working day, which is being tried in Sweden?

There’s no national scheme, but municipalities and private employers have tried it, and in general found it quite beneficial for the labour force. They experience better working conditions and you can see some effects when it comes to health, you get fewer sick days.

The fewer hours people work, the fewer hours they spend off sick.  Who knew?

And what I think will really change consumption patterns is the growth of the sharing economy, which has so many benefits for the individual – getting easy access to things like vehicles without the responsibility of ownership and maintenance. That could be a game-changer.

Oh, it’ll be a game-changer all right.  Look at how well the Soviets got on with collective farms which had no responsibility of ownership or maintenance for machinery and vehicles.

I think this is what happens when you make a biologist the deputy finance minister of a country.

Even More on Carrier Bags

This is the post I know you’ve all been waiting for!  Further to my previous two posts on carrier bags, I now have something more to add.

Back in August I said that my local supermarket had stopped providing free carrier bags and everyone jumped on me by saying you can buy them for only 5p.  Only I couldn’t, because my supermarket wasn’t selling them.  But now they’ve given us an alternative: a strong, American-style paper bag with handles that looks like this:

They cost 23 cents each.  Last night I bought one because I found myself needing a couple of bottles of milk, a bottle of some sugary fizzy shite that I drink, and a bottle of wine and I didn’t have room in my gym bag.  As I was walking the few hundred metres home I noticed the handles were cutting into my hand, and that carrying more than one in each hand would be damned near impossible.  Plus they’d lose all their strength if they got wet.  You know what I did with it when I got home?  I put it straight in the bin.  What the hell am I going to use it for?  It is too big when folded flat to go into a pocket, and it’s useless for lining a bin, wrapping shoes, or any other purpose to which a secondhand plastic bag can be used.

Maybe it is because my supermarket is a “metro” style one in a nice suburb that these are on offer and traditional carrier bags are unavailable, but I am still convinced that whoever decided free plastic bags should be replaced by inferior paper bags at 23 cents each didn’t have poor, single mothers with no car in mind when they campaigned for it.  No, like my French acquaintance – who no longer speaks to me following an initial argument over the original post and another row over my mentioning her in the follow-up – they will be wealthy middle-class and living a short walk from the nearest supermarket either alone, or with a car in the basement.  Or both.  The types who buy overpriced organic avocados and wear complete Nike outfits when they go to their gym classes.  Now that’s probably enough snark for today.

Staying on topic, there was a rather revolting story doing the rounds on social media the other day about a camel in the UAE having eaten a load of plastic and dying.  I have looked for it online but it seems to be one of those stories that gets recycled every few years, only the name of the camel changes each time.  Anyway, the premise of these articles goes like this:

1. A camel has died in the UAE by eating discarded plastic, some of which is carrier bags.

2. GLOBAL BAN ON PLASTIC BAGS NOW!!!

Whereas my first reaction, having lived in the UAE, was how’s about they get the ignorant, arrogant, self-centred assholes who inhabit that part of the world to strop strewing litter all over the place?  This would do more for the wellbeing of camels than banning carrier bags in Parisian supermarkets, surely?

More on Carrier Bags

I can’t believe I’m going to write a second post on carrier bags, let alone in the same week as the first, but that’s blogging for you.  Tim Worstall did me a solid and linked to my piece over at his own blog, whereupon a number of people missed the point.  So I’ll clarify.

Firstly, I wrote about my specific experience in my local supermarket where buying a carrier bag for 5p is not an option, so for all those people throwing their hands in the air and saying “Oh, it’s only 5p!” unfortunately it isn’t.  And I’ll come back to you lot later.   Although I did notice last time I was in that they’ve started offering paper bags (I don’t know for how much), so at least now customers have a (presumably) cheap option.  But if tens of millions of paper bags are more environmentally friendly to produce, use, and dispose of than plastic bags then fair enough: but I don’t think it’s enough just to assume they are.

And that’s part of my problem with the ban.  One of Tim’s commenters said:

I don’t see the objection. If you buy groceries unplanned, you pay 5p for a bag. Meanwhile, the charge has caused a massive reduction in plastic bag use, and the world will be a very slightly better place for it.

Why is it assumed that a reduction in plastic bag use makes the world a better place?  Was it better for the poor lady in Avignon whose groceries spilled all over the street?  Does using stronger, reusable plastic bags offer an overall improvement?  If so, where are the studies to back it up?  This article (thanks, Bardon) suggests the alternatives are not as good for the environment, partly because (as Tim W mentions) people would reuse carrier bags for other purposes anyway, and now they’ll be buying specific bags.

I think what has driven this ban is an assumption that the use of plastic is in itself bad.  Why, other than some vague reference to “the environment”, is not really explained.  An acquaintance of mine here in Paris took it upon herself to tell me she disagreed with my article and supported the ban because it reduced plastic use.  When I asked why she thought this was a good thing, she said there is a lot of plastic in the sea.  Which is true, but I very much doubt the plastic in the sea takes the form of carrier bags given away at checkouts in European supermarkets.  But somebody has taken the leap from plastic in the sea to plastic in general and flogged it to the gullible in order to support a ban.  Others talked about noticing a reduction in litter since the ban came into effect.  Do we have data showing litter in the form of carrier bags across Europe before and after the various bans, are people happy to go with anecdotes and feelings?  For if we accept the use of plastic in itself is bad, why carrier bags?  Should we ban Bic biros and force everyone to use pencils?

What bothered me about the ban is that it was more than likely proposed by a “charity” or pressure-group whose members will almost certainly be wealthy middle-class; the ban would have been taken up by politicians who probably haven’t bought a trolley-load from a supermarket since barcode scanners came in; and now the population can sit back in smug satisfaction at having made the world a better place.  Only a better place for whom?  The wealthy middle-classes, of course.  But what about the poor?  The middle-classes who agitated for this ban probably don’t have to go shopping with 3 kids and take the bus home, do they?  Oh no, they’ll drive the car to the nearest Waitrose, if they don’t already live within walking distance.  Tell me, what would you rather use to take 15kgs of shopping home on the bus, a paper bag or a carrier bag?  (Incidentally, my French acquaintance who approves of the ban lives alone and directly opposite an organic farmers’ market.)  And for all the quips about being organised enough to bring a bag in advance, most people don’t realise that the lives of the poor are usually neither organised nor predictable, not least because people who live appallingly disorganised lives through no fault of their own are usually poor as a result.

And that’s what really pissed me off about the “Oh, it’s only 5p!” remark.  Yes, it is only 5p, but it is 5p multiplied by however many carrier bags that is being taken out of the grocery budgets of the poorest in society.  Of course the wealthy middle-classes can afford 5p, and as far as purchasing a moment of self-righteous smugness goes, this is pretty cheap.  But this tax (for it is effectively that) is not the only one in existence and every incremental increase in the cost of living has made western Europe seriously bloody expensive to live in.  So yes, it might be “only 5p”, but when you’re shit poor and you’ve been hit with another two or three dozen charges of “only” some nominal amount, it might not seem so negligible.  It might also grate a little that those who lobbied for it are sitting in a quarter-of-a-million quid house.

And that was my point about the Soviet Union: the privileged imposing artificial material restrictions on society which hit those at the bottom hardest, all the while saying it is for their own good.

In summary, I’m not necessarily saying the ban on carrier bags is a bad thing.  I just take objection to people making the assumption that plastic use is in itself bad, alternatives better, and the ban good as if it these were self-evident truths; and the lifestyle preferences of the wealthy middle-classes being imposed on everyone else with nothing but condescending dismissal of the costs and inconvenience to those not so fortunate.

Chesterton’s Fence and Carrier Bags

As with seemingly a good portion of my newly-acquired knowledge, I first heard about Chesterton’s Fence over at Tim Worstall’s blog.  Chesterton’s Fence is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood:

[L]et us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

I’d actually forgotten about this until it was mentioned again more recently in the comments at Tim Worstall’s, and it reminded me of something I saw in Avignon the weekend before last, which in turn reminded me of something I had been thinking for a while.

While in Avignon, I was walking down a busy shopping street when I saw a young lady carrying a large paper bag full of groceries in her arms.  As I walked past her, the bottom of the bag fell out and the groceries went everywhere.  I commented to my companion that there are very good reasons why plastic carrier bags were invented and became extremely popular, and that I’d often thought these reasons were not properly considered when France banned them at the beginning of July (my local supermarket stopped providing them sometime last year, and they don’t even give you the option of buying them like you can in British supermarkets).

The American practice of using paper bags doesn’t really work in any place where you have to walk any distance with groceries, let alone use public transport.  The American-style paper bags are designed to be packed by a former convict and wheeled to your car in a trolley, not carted down the street by hand.  They don’t even have handles for a start, and the young lady who I saw in Avignon was carrying hers in her arms as if it were a child.

I think the behaviour that governments and the lobbyists want the citizens to adopt is one whereby they turn up to the supermarket with one or more robust, reusable grocery bags but this only really works when the shopping trip is planned.  What somebody is supposed to do if they pop into the supermarket to buy more than two items on the way home is anyone’s guess, unless they fancy forking out a fiver for one of those robust, reusable grocery bags.  I expect what we’ll find is people taking up the habit of carrying around a small, compact bag in case they need to do some unscheduled grocery shopping at some point in the day.  During the good old days of the Soviet Union, the happy citizens would routinely carry around a string bag called an avoska, which roughly translates as “perhaps bag”, on the off-chance they would stumble across a store selling something worth buying and would be able to carry it home (before swapping it with a neighbour or friend in return for something they might actually want).

For some people, particularly middle-class environmentalists, forcing the masses to adopt practices common in the Soviet Union is probably seen as progress.